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Virtual and Real Shake Hands @ Silicon Valley Contemporary

Clive McCarthy: Mackerel and Lemons @ SJICA Booth # 411 

Imagine a painting whose appearance shifts continuously over time, so much so that millions of years would have to pass before for your first glimpse of it returned.  This may sound, to some, like a gimmick, but I assure you it’s not.  The SF-based engineer/artist Clive McCarthy, 59, has achieved it.   McCarthy’s grounding in art history is as solid as the algorithms that control his “paintings”. His works, projected on small flat-panel screens, randomly recompose before your eyes.  Each is derived from thousands of photographs that neither reveal their identity as such nor recall photorealism.  They serially dissolve and reconstitute with periodic screen “wipes,” as if Hans Hofmann had applied a lethargic version of the “Ken Burns effect” to post Impressionist paintings.  Works like these show that the much-hyped fusion of science and art  is finally starting to bear fruit.  

For a taste, head to the Silicon Valley Contemporary art fair, up through April 13.  There, at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art booth (#411) you’ll find a solo show of McCarthy’s electronic canvases.   In a hall filled with work from high-profile artists such as Dennis Oppenheim (Ace), Tara Donovan (Pace) and Marina Abramovic (whose Mutual Wave Machine made its U.S. debut), the ICA’s low-key display was abuzz with viewers who could have just as easily walked on by, thinking they were looking at static works entombed in flat-panel screens.  That is because of the slow pace at which they unfold — activity you can't see here for obvious reasons.  
 
McCarthy: Barbara

McCarthy’s works uncannily evince the facture of actual paintings.  Which is not to say that you will be fooled into thinking you are looking at pigment on canvas; only that his works are sensual.  His algorithms do a superb job of synthesizing line, brushstroke and tactility. Whether that’s good, I’m not sure.  In general, I resist digital encroachments on certain segments of the real world.  But, if we’re destined to lose that battle, as it appears we are, then it’s people like McCarthy who I want in charge.

What’s unquestionably good about McCarthy’s effort is that it combines the virtues painting and video while muting their respective “problems”.  Painting activates the senses through the touch of the human hand on tangible surfaces.  The problem is that you have to engage with it, something the device-addicted Facebook generation may be incapable of.  With video it’s just the opposite.  It exploits our survival instinct.  If it moves, we look.  We can’t help it.  McCarthy’s works, because of how they blend the long-look demand of painting with the must-look quality of video, reward instinct and intellect simultaneously and in roughly equal measure. Thus, process is the product.  The only counterpart that comes to mind are the videos David Hockney made of himself creating iPad drawings. 
 
McCarthy, who spent 17 years as chief engineer at the semiconductor maker Altera before taking up art in 1997, understands these challenges, having probed the neurophysiology of vision as explored by David Maar, the MIT scientist whose work on cognition and computation remains seminal decades after it was published posthumously in 1982. McCarthy’s application of his ideas may well change the rules of engagement for painters. 
 
Gisela Colon: Skewed Square Glo-Pod @ Ace, Booth #304  

Marina Abramovic’s research experiment, Mutual Wave Machine, conducted on willing participants of which I was one, will likely deliver more stimulation to her team of researchers, than to us.  It’s an empathy test that works as follows:  Two people sit facing each other in a nylon mesh enclosure with electrodes attached to their heads.  A computer measures neural activity from different parts of the brain and reflects it back to the participants.  It comes in the form of dots of light projected onto the fabric.  The more densely packed the dots, the greater the empathy between the individuals.  At the end of the five-minute session, my partner and I were informed that the visible intensity of our interaction surpassed anything previously seen.  Funny since neither I, nor my partner, SF Chronicle reporter Caille Millner, had ever met.  Professional skeptics, I guess, generate their own kind of heat.  Jokes aside, you can see how this data might be useful. After the session we answered a series of questions relating to empathy (or lack thereof), the idea being to correlate self-assessment with actual results.  All of which led to more jokes, some with serious implications, like what if potential marriage partners took such a test and learned they were incompatible?  And, could this simply be a new spin on the E-meter, Scientology’s lie-detector test?  Stay tuned.  You may find yourself someday sitting in box like this before being granted a marriage license.  

Malik Sidibe, Mali Twist @ Smith Andersen North, Booth #105 

These, of course, are hardly the only reasons for making your way to San Jose. My list of exhibits meriting closer examination include (in no particular order): Peter Blake Gallery, which features knockout paintings from Don Voisine, Hadi Tabatabi and Alan Ebnother; Ace Gallery, which showcased its Space and Light contingent, chief among them Gisela Colón, whose molded acrylic sculpture, Skewed Square Glo Pod (Iridescent Red), radiates more concentrated sexual energy than anything I've seen in recent memory; Corderios Galeria, where you’ll find the comic/cosmic figurative paintings of Rafa Macarrón; Smith Andersen North, with a stunning solo show of copper plate gravures by the Malian photographer Malick Sidibé; and the Moving Image Pavilion, the contents of which I  caught only a tantalizing glimpse before calling it a night.  

Postcript: For those who recall the final SF art fair produced by the producer of SVC, Hamptons Expo Group, the difference in quality between these two events feels like night and day.  Here, the advisory committee performed genuine due diligence, and it shows in a fair that is first-rate in every regard: layout, pacing, and most of all, the quality of the art on view.  Now, all that remains to be seen is whether the attendees will leave behind enough cash to compel a repeat performance.   
–DAVID M. ROTH
 
Silicon Valley Contemporary @ San Jose McEnery Convention Center through April 13, 2014.    
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